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Atmosphere of concern

Profile image for By Elizabeth Smith / For the Denton Record-Chronicle
By Elizabeth Smith / For the Denton Record-Chronicle

DISH - A mother directs her four children about the living room, helping each to comb through an assortment of papers, books, blankets and clothing. One child closes a cardboard box and carries it upstairs to a spare bedroom, already stacked high with boxes and plastic bins filled with shoes, craft supplies and keepsakes. The door to the adjacent room - the library - remains shut, the books since removed from shelves and poured into boxes that fill the room. More boxes spill out into the upstairs hallway.

In one of her rare trips upstairs to her boys' room, Rebekah Sheffield notices a bottle collection that sits on the shelf. "I thought I told him to pack those up," she huffs. DRC/Barron Ludlum Rebekah Sheffield and her husband moved to Dish in 1996, with dreams of restoring a 100-year-old farmhouse. Today, their home, shown March 17, is surrounded by the town's many natural gas production facilities. View larger More photos Photo store

Since July, the Sheffields have been packing to leave their home in the country. They look forward to the day the house will be left in the rearview mirror. But outside, no moving truck waits in the driveway. No "For Sale" sign sits in the grass. The family has neither sold their home nor bought another.

They have nowhere to go.

Downstairs, boxes line the kitchen and sit atop shelves encircling the dining room. Nearly every crevice in their home has been filled with moving boxes, each neatly stacked and labeled with its contents.

The Sheffield family is packing up 15 years' worth of belongings, collecting the items that can be stored away and keeping the necessities out, for now.

They want to be ready. They hope to move far away from Dish, far enough to escape the pollution.


The first wells were drilled across the street from the Sheffields' home in 1998, two years after the family moved to Dish. ALSO ONLINE

  Sheffield Health Test Results

  Results of the DSHS Dish 2010 Health Study

The tiny town of 201, about 10 miles southwest of Denton, first gained notoriety in 2005 when town leaders changed its name from Clark to Dish in exchange for a decade of free satellite television for residents. The battle between L.E. Clark, the man who helped incorporate the town in 2000, and the mayor at the time, Bill Merritt, brought national attention, with the dueling officials roasted on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show.

But the Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary Gasland shows another Dish - a place transformed from a peaceful, rural community to the Grand Central Station of the Barnett Shale.


Each day, Dish officials estimate, about 1 billion cubic feet of gas travels through three metering stations, more than 20 major gas gathering pipelines and 11 compression plants that have been shoehorned into the town's two square miles by energy companies. 

The Sheffields are among many residents who have lodged complaints with local, state and federal officials about the noise and odors coming from facilities so loosely regulated that toxic emissions, whether the release is intentional or accidental, go unreported and uncounted.

When the wind blows from the compressor stations to the southeast and emissions are high - leaving a strangely sweet odor hanging in the air - those are the days Rebekah Sheffield and her family feel the worst. Her husband, Warren, frequently checks the readings of a new state air ambient monitor online. When the wind is blowing from the southeast, he often finds that the ambient air levels of the 46 toxic compounds being monitored are higher than normal.

"We know that we just can't stay - for our health," Warren Sheffield says. "Every day here we feel worse. Every day we're a little bit sicker. We're going to have to do something."

But with their house in disrepair and the prospect of finding a buyer unlikely, the Sheffields say they feel trapped.


Rebekah and Warren Sheffield moved to Dish in 1996 after buying a century-old farmhouse. The couple says they dreamed of restoring it by hand and raising their children. It was a place where she could breathe in the fresh air - until the gas wells were drilled across the street.

Rebekah Sheffield first noticed changes in her body the following year when she reacted to fragrances, particularly perfumes and detergents, she says. A whiff of someone's perfume sent her stumbling to the floor. She fainted at ballgames, in the grocery store, even while sitting in the pew at church.

Her physician, Dr. Tod Heldridge, prescribed a battery of allergy medications, though they did little to lessen her symptoms. When her condition worsened in 2003, she consulted a neurologist, but tests found no brain lesions or tumors. In 2004, she sought out an allergist, but no combination of pills or nasal sprays substantially quelled her symptoms. The next year, she saw another specialist to treat her constant state of vertigo, but tests were inconclusive. Rebekah Sheffield's instability was very real to her husband, who grew frustrated that he could not catch his wife when she fell. Finally, in her early 30s, she purchased a wheelchair.

Rebekah Sheffield learned the hard way that soaps and detergents will give her chemical burns up to her elbows. In place of shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream and deodorant, she must create her own toiletries using a combination of natural products including cornstarch, baking soda, lemon juice and sugar.

Unable to determine either the specific cause or an effective treatment for her condition, Heldridge diagnosed her with multiple chemical sensitivity. The medical community does not accept the diagnosis as a legitimate medical condition, with debate both over its existence and if symptoms are triggered from exposure to chemicals.

"Nobody really knows why this happens," said Heldridge. "If medicine does not recognize the cause for something, doctors will doubt it's real. It's an easy way to say, 'I can't figure it out.'"

Because there is no accepted definition, the descriptions for the kinds of symptoms and types of chemical exposures can vary. Chemicals in the environment and in everyday materials such as cleaning supplies and fragrances may cause a reaction similar to that of an allergic reaction, triggering headaches, rashes, asthma, muscle and joint aches, fatigue and memory loss.

"If you can expose them to chemicals over and over, there's something there," said Heldridge. "We're just not smart enough to figure out what's causing it."

As Rebekah Sheffield's reactions increase, the things she cannot do far outnumber those things she can, even daily and leisure activities.

She schools her two younger children at home and tries to provide for all four. Yet her fatigue makes her the dependent. The youngest child gives her medicine with a glass of water. On Wednesday nights, her husband must return home from work soon after the kids leave for church. The family cannot leave her for more than 30 minutes in case of a reaction.

She avoids the hair salon, lest a shampoo or spray triggers a reaction. She went months without a haircut after her hairstylist was no longer available for home visits. Finally, last fall, she braved the salon on a Tuesday morning. She was lucky - she was the only customer at the time.

The self-identified bibliophile stopped reading because she couldn't concentrate and focus on the small text.

The moving boxes labeled "unread books" remain untouched.


Rebekah Sheffield says she tried to learn to live with her condition, thinking she had no other options.

Meanwhile, town officials had arranged for the Texas Department of State Health Services to come investigate effects the gas industry's emissions could be having on the residents' health.

In 2009, town officials spent 15 percent of the town's annual budget on an independent air quality test that found benzene, xylene, naphthalene, carbon disulfide and other chemicals at elevated levels. With those findings, the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, a national, nonprofit watchdog group, surveyed Dish residents for health effects. Of the 31 who participated, they reported 165 different medical conditions, and 61 percent of those health effects - including frequent sinus infections, nosebleeds, headaches, persistent coughs and irritated eyes - could be associated with the toxic compounds found in the air.

State health and environmental officials agreed, initially, to work together. In the end, only the health department came.

Rebekah Sheffield was one of 28 residents who participated in the state's study. That study took blood and urine samples in January 2010 and looked for the presence of volatile organic compounds associated with shale gas drilling and production.

In a rare public appearance, Sheffield went to the public meeting at Dish Town Hall to discuss the state's findings in May.

State toxicologist Dr. Carrie Bradford told the audience that levels of the volatiles in the blood samples were not greater than the levels found in 95 percent of the general population, and therefore, not consistent with a communitywide exposure. As she answered questions from residents, Bradford repeated that the levels could be linked to occupational exposure or other household products. She told the crowd it was difficult to link environmental exposure to health effects.

"The data we collected was biological data, but we cannot use the biological data alone to determine health effects," Bradford told the crowd.

Sheffield waited in line behind other residents for her turn to question Bradford. Some residents vented their frustrations about the quality of the study, others worried about livestock's exposure, and some were upset that children were excluded from the study.

Sheffield rolled up to the microphone in her wheelchair. She removed the gas mask from her face, swatted the air from under her nose and began to speak before her husband could lower the microphone for her.

She argued that she believed the gas industry to be the cause of the levels found in her blood and urine, and her illness. As a stay-at-home mother with four children, she told Bradford, she is not exposed to the sources the study suggested, such as cigarette smoke and gasoline.

"Why are you able to say that you don't know where this comes from when every other possible source of my problem has been eliminated?" she asked. "You tell me how the miner's canary over here is not getting sick from exposures because there's nothing else for it to be now."


After considering the gas well near her home, the others down the street and the compressor site south of town, Rebekah Sheffield said the pieces all started to fall into place. She turned her eyes to a list of emissions - at the top of those toxic compounds was formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

State environmental officials conducted a special study of formaldehyde emissions in June, after an industry-funded study found formaldehyde near compression facilities in Arlington comparable to the compression facilities in Dish.

Some research shows formaldehyde could form when methane breaks down in the atmosphere.

She became convinced that formaldehyde was partly responsible for her condition. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality tested for formaldehyde among other compounds at 12 locations near compression and well sites. Two locations were found to have formaldehyde at 4.8 parts per billion, including the well site directly across the street from the Sheffield home.

"I had been getting sick slowly over the years, and it took a lot of reflecting over the next several months to make the connection," she says. "But there were gas wells all over the place, and I felt yucky all the time. But I was worried about taking care of the kids and grocery shopping. We were too worried about my health to be thinking about the rest of it."

When Sheffield showed the map to her physician, he told her that the only real treatment he could prescribe is avoidance. The only way to avoid exposure was to leave town and leave her home.

The couple's ambitions to repair, bit by bit, their white two-story farmhouse - already many years in disrepair when they bought it - were stifled by the costs of her medical care. Instead of replacing the siding and flooring or painting the walls, the Sheffields have spent thousands on doctor visits, tests and medications. They also spent money ridding the home of anything that could agitate her condition, including everyday items that contain formaldehyde and other chemicals.

They tore a dining room storage cabinet containing particleboard from the wall. They replaced an ironing board with a particleboard base with one of solid wood. They replaced the foam mattress on her bed - where she spends many hours recuperating from fatigue - with one made of bamboo fiber and costing $2,000. In 2008, they installed a whole-house water filtration system. Her symptoms improved greatly, but at a cost of $7,000.

Now, they say, prospects of selling their home - with dozens of repairs left undone, in an area of possible contamination, with no money saved for a permanent move and no prospective buyers - are poor.

Beyond all that, Rebekah Sheffield says that the most painful aspect of her illness is the increasing isolation.

She does not attend regular church services for fear of an allergic reaction to fragrances or chemical off-gassing from the carpet and pews. After fainting in front of a group of children, she quit her job at the church nursery and stopped assisting with her husband's class.

For the same reasons, visits to museums, the symphony, restaurants, the movies, even visits to her sister's house, are off limits. She uses extreme caution when she goes out along with her family, taking her wheelchair and gas mask.

"One by one, every pleasure I've had in my life is being taken away from me," she says. "We can find ways to work around it to minimize the effects of illness, but I'll never again be able to experience those things illness-free. When do I get to assemble with people? I miss that."

Rebekah Sheffield's children and husband say they have noticed negative health effects, too. They've become easily winded and even vomited after exercising outside, their skin becomes itchy with hives while walking down the road past the gas well site, and they've had nosebleeds while inside the house.

Nineteen-year-old Sarah Sheffield is beginning to show symptoms similar to her mother's. Seventeen-year-old Robert suffered a seizure - his first - in February.


When Chuck and Geri Pegg moved to North Texas in 2007 to be closer to family, they found the one-acre lot they were looking for in Dish. They built their retirement home just a few hundred feet northeast of the large compressor site, unaware of the shale gas industry's growing presence. DRC/Al Key Chuck and Geri Pegg stand in front of their home on Chisum Road in Dish on Monday. The couple, who moved to North Texas in 2007 to be closer to family, built their retirement home just a few hundred feet northeast of a large compressor site, unaware of the shale gas industry's growing presence. View larger More photos Photo store

Their back porch, a custom 80-foot extension that runs the length of their house, was to be their leisure spot, but Geri Pegg says the 18-wheelers that drive to the pipeline storage facility next door constantly blow dust onto the porch. On days when the dust is bad, they don't go out.

The couple says they knew it wasn't their imagination when, during a weeklong family gathering, two guests suffered from severe nasal congestion, sneezing and coughing. After the town's air quality study - one sample of which was taken at their place - they realized the situation was much more serious than a dusty porch. Samples taken near their storage barn just behind their home found 10 toxic compounds at high levels, including benzene, a known carcinogen, and carbon disulfide, a neurotoxin.

On some nights, the Peggs stand on their back porch and watch the fumes rise from the compressor station with the moonlight as the backdrop. The rumbling of the compressor stations is a constant noise. Sometimes the rumble is just loud enough to be heard over the wind and the light tings of metal wind chimes, they say. Other times, the rumble is much more like a train pulling an endless line of boxcars.

Their property shares a fence line with Lucky B Ranch, a neighboring horse ranch. About 20 feet from that fence line and buried a few feet down is a 16-inch gas pipeline, which runs past their home to the compressor site. With another two pipelines - one 24-inch gathering line and a 30-inch transmission line just west from the end of their street - the Peggs say they fear the worst.

With pipeline explosions like the one near Marshall in 2005 and last year in San Bruno, Calif., the Peggs remain on their toes. In case of an explosion, they have a plan in place, including packed bags and an evacuation route, but Geri Pegg has nightmares about getting out of the garage in time.

"It's not a way of life we ever thought we were going to have," she says.

Upset that they didn't know sooner, Geri Pegg keeps track of what goes on around town now, filling a brown paper sack with newspaper clippings about gas drilling and attending the monthly town meetings.

The couple wonders if they should sell their home to someone else. They are reluctant, too, of giving up on their retirement dream.

Geri Pegg says she would gladly sell their home if the gas companies offered to buy it. But until an offer comes, they wait.


When Calvin Tillman came to Dish in 2003, he found the quiet rural setting he'd pictured for his family and for his horses. The gas wells that were already in town didn't bother him much. He'd grown up among the oil fields of Oklahoma. Wells were a part of the landscape. But the compressor site across the street from his house in Dish was not what he'd imagined. Associated Press file photo/Tony Gutierrez Dish Mayor Calvin Tillman loads boxes into a portable storage unit outside his home on Feb. 22 in Dish. View larger More photos Photo store

After becoming mayor in 2006, Tillman became an outspoken advocate for safer drilling practices, speaking at local meetings, working with elected officials in Austin, and touring the Marcellus Shale area in Pennsylvania and New York to educate citizen groups on the risks and how to protect themselves.

Often at these meetings, Tillman is armed with a jar of murky water, drawn straight from the well of Dish couple Amber and Damon Smith. He gives the clear bottle a little shake and asks if anyone would like a drink.

Tillman and town commissioners approved ordinances to regulate what the town can, and worked with operators to follow the ordinances and control emissions. Early last year, the Town Council passed a 90-day moratorium on drilling permits to revise its original ordinance. Faced with new rules that require emissions tests pre- and post-drilling, drillers go outside city limits now, Tillman says.

The community's limits on the ability to control industry practices leave him concerned about residents, both families who have lived in Dish for years and newcomers, including young families who don't know the recent history, he says.

Most small-town mayors promote their cities, as does Tillman, but he and other town leaders are honest about the dilemma. Underneath the banner announcing Dish as the small-city winner of a statewide fitness challenge on the town's website, links provide information on air quality and how to file complaint forms with TCEQ.

Tillman is likely the only mayor with a personal blog tackling the negative effects of the industry. Since April 2009, he's published on and sent periodic e-mails to about 50 residents to communicate new developments. Tillman reiterated those concerns with his appearance in Gasland.

Those concerns hit home when his two young sons awoke in the middle of the night with nosebleeds and there was a strong odor in the air. TCEQ's formaldehyde study soon followed - the same one that helped Rebekah Sheffield connect the dots about her exposure - but no violations were found. DRC file photo/David Minton Dish Mayor Calvin Tillman and his wife, Tiffiney, put their home up for sale after their sons started having heavy nosebleeds. View larger More photos Photo store

After months of considering, reconsidering and considering again, Tillman and his wife put their home on the market in September. Part of the counter-offer was a condition that the buyers watch Gasland. They sold their home in February and moved to Aubrey.

He'll no longer be mayor of Dish, but he'll stay involved with those who need his help, he says - and he's starting to get involved in other ways.

In October, Tillman partnered with other activists to form the nonprofit ShaleTest after rural Pennsylvania landowners told him they signed gas leases without thinking about long-term consequences. The nonprofit group helps provide environmental testing to low-income families.

ShaleTest can help residents who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford testing. It costs thousands of dollars to know what chemicals, if any, are in the air, soil and water around a home.

"If this is the way they're [gas companies] going to do business, they might as well put a chain-link fence around the entire Barnett Shale and put a padlock around it and don't let anybody live here," Tillman says. "We've got to clean this up."

Still, many Dish residents say they don't need to know which chemicals are present to know that something's wrong.

On the night following Thanksgiving, Tillman received several phone calls and text messages from residents alarmed about a strong odor. According to data from the TCEQ air monitor, ethane levels jumped from 111 parts per billion to 678 ppb and remained high throughout the night.

Tillman again wrote to residents in an e-mail, saying he, too, feared for his safety.

"I have difficulty in finding out exactly what level is explosive, but fear we may find out the hard way," he wrote.

Some residents have filed suit, naming all the companies that operate near their homes. According to court documents, Jim and Judy Caplinger filed suit against Atmos, Energy Transfer and Enbridge in July 2007, adding Chesapeake and Crosstex to the list of defendants a year later, alleging that the companies "knew or were substantially certain that locating the Compressor Stations in such proximity to the Caplingers' homestead would cause interference and invasion by noise, noxious fumes and related elements of nuisance."

The Caplingers settled out of court in October 2010.

Other lawsuits are ongoing.

After asking for input from the community, Tillman and the town commissioners voted for the town itself to pursue litigation against area operators.

Dish may be the first town in the Barnett Shale area to do so.

In an e-mail sent to residents, Tillman wrote, "I really would prefer not to have to do this and was optimistic that we could avoid this, but I am afraid we have a ticking time bomb in our back yard and the consequences to no action may be devastating."

The goal is simple, he says.

"The goal is where we can go to sleep at night and not be concerned about what we're breathing or whether we're going to blow up."


TCEQ and state officials continue to state that more testing must be done and urge residents to complain if they smell an odor and to log their health effects.

The back-and-forth with state regulators has left residents frustrated.

As Tillman continues to crusade and the Peggs continue to dream of safety just over the hill from the compression stations, the Sheffields continue to pack the contents of their home into boxes.

After months of packing, the family has learned to live among the boxes - arranging, rearranging and shifting them from room to room to create more living space. They sold an antique piano to get more space in the dining room.

Rebekah Sheffield and her husband are eyeing a permanent relocation to Fannin County and away from the Barnett Shale. Although those 75 miles could mean a new life, she doubts that leaving the toxic fumes that made her ill will lessen her condition, she says.

"Even if we move, I still have to face the fact that this is a lifelong problem that I've got now," she says. "You can't get un-multiple chemical sensitivity-ed."

If she could sell or rent their home to another family, Rebekah Sheffield says she couldn't submit another family to the area in good conscience. If she had it her way, she says she would donate her home to Dish as a library or historical site.

Until then, the Sheffields will keep packing their belongings and their lives into moving boxes that may never be moved.